Villas of Tivoli

Trip Start Mar 30, 2007
Trip End Apr 08, 2007

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

The day dawned clear and bright - lovely. We breakfasted, then left our flat a little before 09.00h. When we arrived at the Trevi Fountain, the crowd was substantially smaller than it had been previously. The fountain was being cleaned ... but, as it was almost 09.00h, we decided to wait to see if they turned it on ... and, indeed, it was not long before the fountain began to flow.

The Trevi Fountain is really very absurd. It sits in a very small piazza - really more of an opening between buildings where three roads come together. A giant figure of Neptune seems to burst out of the building, while, below him, two other figures wrestle with massive horses. It seems to epitomize baroque excess.

From the Trevi, we walked to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore - our first foray into Vatican Territory (oooh). The main basilica dates back to the 5th century CE, and the original mosaics are intact. Unfortunately, they are so high above the floor that it is impossible to see them much at all. Instead, we went around the outside, gaping at the very elaborate chapels and, beneath the altar, the golden and silver urn that supposedly contains a fragment of Jesus' crib.

From the church, we went a few blocks to the train station. The signs to the Rental Cars seemed to lead us in circles, but, after several kilometres of walking, we found Avis and rented a car.

I drove; Paul navigated. We decided to take the slow road that went directly to Tivoli. This turned out to be a terrible mistake. Getting to the road was not difficult, as it left Rome right near the station ... but traffic was very slow the entire way. And it went through long stretches of apartment blocks, then a series of car dealerships, then light industry, then heavy industry ... trucks and busses everywhere ... not very attractive at all.

But eventually, we arrived in the town of Tivoli. It was actually kind of fun driving through the mediaeval streets, and we had no trouble finding parking just off the main plaza.

After a quick lunch of pizza or kebabs (the kebabs were better than the pizza), we visited the Villa d'Este. The building itself is rather plain - it had originally been a convent. Currently, the rooms are all empty, though the murals remain. In some of the lower rooms, the floors are cut away, showing mosaic floors from Imperial times.

The gardens, however, are gorgeous. Descending from the hillside in a series of terraces, the main features of the garden are the many fountains. Three of the fountains receive three stars in our Michelin guide.

The first of these is a grotto, with a statue of the sibyl of Tivoli. One cannot go into the grotto, which is unfortunate, but it looks very cool in the "caves" ... but it is still a lovely fountain, with a large pool at the base.

We then looked down the long avenue of small fountains, each a stream coming from an animal's face in the wall of a terrace. The walk along the avenue must feel cool in the hot summers.

Still on the upper terraces, we paused before the Organ fountain. Now, it appears to be just an elaborate structure, with many flourishes and statues ... but once, the falling water actually pushed air through organ pipes, while another mechanism operated the keyboard ... hence, the organ fountain. Too bad it no longer functions.

From here, we descended to the lowest level of the gardens. The fountains here are simpler: a disturbing one of the multi-breasted Earth Mother, another of tufa-pyramids covered in moss. There was a lovely view across several fish ponds, surrounded by pots of yellow tulips and daffodils, towards the high-reaching geysers of the Neptune Fountain. All this was particularly lovely, given our sunny, warm day.

The last spot - not really a fountain - had painted bronze birds. Water pushed through a mechanism created whistling bird sounds. Then, when a mechanical owl appears, the whistling stopped. Although the mechanism disappeared long ago, the sounds of the birds have been recreated. Unfortunately, the owl no longer moves, although the chirping of the birds does cease periodically.

From Tivoli, we drove just a few km to Hadrian's Villa - the remains of a massive complex, originally constructed for Hadrian in the 2nd Century but visited by emperors for a couple of centuries after that.

The tour begins with a model of what the entire complex probably looked like - although only the central sections have been excavated. There were numerous baths, a few artificial ponds, a couple of piazzas, some large residential structures, two ampitheatres, a fake temple of Serapis, and the odd, circular Teatro Marittimo - a central building surrounded by a moat. Its purpose, like the purpose of many of the structures, is not known for certain ... although archaeologists suspect it was Hadrian's private retreat. (He was clearly odd.)

Although most of the marble facing, ceilings, and floors of the buildings are missing, many of the inner brick structures remain. This certainly gives one the sense of the size of the various buildings. In a few places, the columns have been reconstructed of marble remains plus plaster filler. Fragments of the mosaic floor - or a few streaks of paint - remain here and there. The villa is extensive. We spent about an hour and a half roaming about ... and only about half of the remains have been excavated.

We returned, exhausted, to our car and decided to stop soon for coffee. Before we hit the main road, we found a café/gelateria. The cappuccinos were .85 euro - about one-quarter of what they cost in the heart of Rome. The gelato was also much cheaper. We sat outside and consumed that elixir of life.

Almost immediately after setting out, our sunny day clouded over, and we were hit by a downpour. I managed to get onto the main road ... but it was terribly slow. So, using our GPS, we found a back road to the autostrada. This back road moved fast but was extremely narrow - so narrow that it was hard to believe it was a two-way road. We encountered traffic on narrow parts, but never on the super-narrow parts, and soon we were on the autostrada. The motorway moved very well until about ˝ km from Rome centre. Then it slowed a lot. It dumped us very close to the railway station, so, after a bit of winding through narrow Roman streets, we were able to pull easily (well, relatively easily) into the car park. Whew!

We took the (packed) metro back to the Spanish Steps, then rested in our flat until almost 21.00h. Went out and wandered through the streets, looking for a place to eat that wasn't a) so crowded that people were waiting for tables, and b) wasn't a wine bar. Found a cute little café on a side street and had a very good meal. Kids talked about their memories of elementary school, and we laughed a lot. Closed the place down - then back home to read/write before we fall asleep.

Ah, great day!
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